Apologists at War: Religious Studies is Not the Enemy

The Maxwell Institute’s removal of Daniel Peterson as editor of the Mormon Studies Review continues to raise the issue of the appropriateness of apologetics at institutions such as BYU (for a more recent discussion, see here)–on the one hand BYU has a mission to “build the kingdom” so to speak, and on the other hand BYU is working to establish a legitimate academic presence in fields such as religious studies. There are some that see these two goals as largely exclusive of each other. This comment left on William Hamblin’s blog is a prime example:

Additionally, as a long-time observer of the conflict between those inclined to traditional apologetics and those who believe we should jettison that approach in favor of a “Religious Studies” model (which effectively adopts a secular posture in all things), I raise a warning voice.  There is a calculated effort underway to silence the voice of apologetics in the Church of Jesus Christ, and this effort is disguising its true motivations.  They have constructed a mythical narrative concerning the allegedly “vicious personal attacks” that they claim to be typical of FARMS-style apologetics in order to supplant eloquent defenses of the faith with dry, sterile, secular scholarship that has no use for faith except as a word they can use to describe the foolish traditions of people long since dead.

My sense is that much of John Gee’s post here can also be read as a criticism of adopting a religious studies approach at BYU (or at least in the MI). I’ve blogged a bit about my views on religious studies and apologetics here and here, and I’d like to invite continued discussion of those issues here.

In short, my view is that there are many ways to do religious studies; and I do not believe that religious studies necessarily precludes faith. As such, I believe that one can do religious studies at an institution such as BYU in a way that one’s work will be respected by others in the field of religious studies, while at the same time leaving room for faith. I also believe that apologetics and religious studies share some important similarities, and these similarities are such that apologetics should continue to thrive at BYU. I see no reason to believe that the changes at the Maxwell Institute mean that a kind of religious studies is emerging there that does not leave room for apologetics.

This does not mean that there will not be tension between religious studies and apologetics as might be done at BYU. I think that each endeavor has different intended consequences, for instance (apologetics to shore up faith, measured by increased commitment to the Church; and religious studies as understanding something previously unfamiliar or reinterpreting the familiar in light of the previously unfamiliar). But I think this is a healthy tension that pushes us to strive for a more impartial understanding of religion on the one hand, and a deeper understanding of why we produce scholarship on the other.

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